February 12, 2007

Poor Things by Alasdair Gray

Alasdair Gray's novel, Poor Things: Episodes from the Early Life of Archibald McCandless M.D. Scottish Public Health Officer edited by Alasdair Gray, is one of those great books that I never would have known about if it hadn't come so very recommended by a good friend of mine who happens to have really interesting taste in literature.

The general plot is a little difficult to describe without giving too much away, so I'm going to cheat and quote the blurb on the back of the paperback edition. It reads:

What strange secret made beautiful, tempestuous Bella Baxter irresistible to the poor medical student Archie McCandless? Was it her mysterious origin in the home of his monstrous friend Godwin Baxter, the genius whose voice could perforate eardrums? This story of true love and scientific daring storms through Victorian operating theaters, continental casinos, and a Parisian bordello, reaching an interrupted climax in a Scottish church.

And believe me when I say that's only the beginning.

Gray's style is like the offspring of the most modern post-modernist and the most ardent Victorian Gothic realist - and I'm not even sure if there is such a thing as Victorian Gothic realism. Gray winkingly introduces Poor Things as a book "written" by Archie McCandless and "edited" by himself. In his Introduction, he admits to a certain disagreement over whether or not the book is purely fiction or an amazing account of real occurrences. This sets up one of this book's primary points of interest - it's written in such a way that the reader has no idea which narrative voice he or she can trust. Gray pulls this thread of narrative untrustworthiness all the way through, starting with his introduction and then continuing it through McCandless' book. But then he whollops all of the reader's certainty about McCandless' veracity with a letter from Bella Baxter (now Victoria McCandless), denying the truth of her husband's story and telling her own version of it. Then Gray topples the reader's ability to rely on her testimony with the "historical evidence" he's collected. The reader is left with no clue as to which perspective is the accurate perspective and the distinct impression that they could all be lunatics. I love being kept on my toes and Gray did it without ever making me feel manipulated.

I also loved Gray's ability to play with the English language and his use of that play to chart the development of a brain from childhood to adulthood. But I don't want to say any more about that for those who haven't read it.

I just had so much fun with this daft, terribly clever novel. I never would have heard about it, let alone read it, without a recommendation (particularly because it is pretty post-modern and I don't usually go in for that), but I'm so happy that I did. Therefore, I am heartily recommending it in turn - it's not hard to find and very worth the read, especially if you like Frankenstein, Edgar Allen Poe, H.G.Wells, The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalian, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Dracula, Trilby, Alice Through the Looking-Glass or Rider Haggard's She. Belle Baxter/Victoria McCandless herself claims that her husband filched elements from all of these books and incorporated them in his Poor Things, but I wouldn't necessarily trust her. Just read for yourself....

Dracula on Masterpiece Theater

This doesn't exactly qualify as a review, but last night I watched PBS's presentation of Dracula as done by Masterpiece Theater and I wanted to mention it, since Dracula is one of my favorite books and I tend to love film adaptations of the story, even if they have little to do with the original text. I love the Coppola film version as one that follows Stoker's text pretty faithfully, but I also really like Wes Craven's Dracula 2000, which had little to do with the original text aside from the fact that the vampire's name was Dracula and Abraham Van Helsing tries to stop him. I'm not really a purist, I just like the literary and cultural mythology that's grown up out of Bram Stoker's book

Unfortunately, the Masterpiece Theater version of this often adapted work kind of sucked. Please forgive the pun. I guess they had to fit as much as they could into 1 hour and 45 minutes so they sort of cut and slashed through the story. They fit in new material (like syphilis and a secret cult being the reason for Dracula's arrival on British soil) with some of the tale's more famous elements (like Lucy's sexy death and vampiric resurrection) so haphhazardly that nothing ended up being very well developed.

I can say this though: it does just keep moving. Which I suppose could be considered a good thing, if it weren't so unsatisfying. As the Lemurhubby said last night, "wow, I've definitely heard of a minute feeling like a hour, but not an hour feeling like a minute...at least not in a bad way." It did so much whizzing over both new and familiar territory that you just kind of missed out on any substance. And believe me, Dracula is chock full of substance.

It was sort of breezy, it was sort of pretty. But for my money, check out Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula or Wes Craven's Dracula 2000. Or Bella Lugosi's portrayal for that matter. Or hell, just read the book. Any of those would probably be more satisfying than the Masterpiece Theater version which sort of merrily skipped right over the mark it was trying to hit.

February 5, 2007

The Ladies of Grace Adieu & Other Stories

The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke is, quite simply, one of the loveliest short story collections I've read recently. It's beautifully written, charming and witty and even slightly horrifying at times (Susanna Clarke's fairies are not the adorable, flowery creatures made popular in Victorian fairytales - they are sensual and viscious by turns).
The stories are also accompanied by Charles Vess' detailed illustrations and are introduced by Professor James Sutherland, Director of Sidhe Studies at the University of Aberdeen. I really enjoyed that - between her "Professor" and the smattering of footnotes, you really get a sense that Ms. Clarke is a woman who has waded through A Lot of academic texts.
But on to the stories themselves...

As most people know, Susanna Clarke wrote the rather massive Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell in which she succesfully sustained a complicated collection of narrative threads through more than 800 pages. She did this so well that when I closed the book on the final page, I still wanted more. So I bothered several people for several days theorizing about various allusions and things that she'd left ambiguous.
The bottom line was that Susanna Clarke had seriously engaged me with her first novel, but I wasn't really sure how her style would translate to a shorter form. After all, I was still left really curious, maybe even a little antsy, after reading 800 pages - would she really be able to arc a short story well enough to be satisfying?

Short answer: Yes.

Little did I know that I'd already read four of Susanna Clarke's short stories in various anthologies and had enjoyed them enough to dog-ear them (yes, I do dog-ear pages and I know I suck for doing it). These stories - "On Lickerish Hill", the excellent "Mr. Simonelli or the Fairy Widower", "Mrs. Mabb" and "Antickes and Frets" stand alone, without reference to the imagined historicity of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. In fact, Ms. Clarke is comfortable enough with her material that her stories possess a beautiful self-contained quality, rather like the small engravings so popular in the early 1800's or a tiny piece of jewel-toned embroidery. They are lovely enough to make you want to continue to the next story, not because you're left unsatisfied with the one you've just read, but because you're curious as to what she'll do next.

This quality of self-contained beauty threads through all of the stories, even the two which directly reference Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell ("The Ladies of Grace Adieu" and "The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse"). Several other stories are briefly mentioned in a footnote here and there in the novel, but you really don't need to have read it to fully enjoy each tale for its own considerable merit.

To end, I was going to plug a couple of the stories that I especially enjoyed, but I don't think that I can. I honestly enjoyed them all. A lot. So, all I can say is that whether or not you've read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, The Ladies of Grace Adieu is a treat that I would recommend. Read the stories in order or out, in one sitting or over a month but definitely take a look at this collection.